It is Valentine’s evening and there is a special atmosphere in the foyer of Sadler’s Wells as the audience is about to see Two Cigarettes in the Dark, a 1985 piece by Pina Bausch remounted two years ago by her company. A silence of trepidation envelops the auditorium as the performance begins and Mechthild Großmann, also part of the original cast, crosses the white stage in high heels and a long black dress to invite us in as her “husband is at war”. We hold our breath and look at her, mesmerized and in reverence, conscious of seeing something that will no longer be changed as the artist has become silent.

It is not an easy task to describe what is going on in Two Cigarettes in the Dark. One can either say too much or too little as the piece is a constant stream of surreal scenes without a linear narrative. Bausch’s light-hearted absurd images portray the monotony of everyday life and how we go about it. And so in what looks like an enormous living room with several doors and three disproportionate aquarium windows (on a lush forest, a cactus and a pool filled with water), we see smartly dressed women and men as they “desperately try to fathom their place in the world”. They are drinking coffee, standing on logs, having an affair, using axes to cut oranges, shooting their unfaithful lovers in lush gardens, and having nervous breakdowns running around the stage with pots tied to their waists, but always wearing heels or swim fins. Interestingly, the music comes in after the action has taken place, underlining its sacrality, as a reminder that even thought seemingly repetitive, in life we get to act only a limited number of times. Between a drink and a waltz performed scooting around, seated on the floor, whatever the dancers do seems perfectly normal and we are so taken by solving the constant rebuses in front of our eyes and trying to make sense of it all that we have to be told it is the interval.

Still, the piece does not only speak of ennui and coping strategies. Nightmarish and fairy-tale-like images introduce hope, together with a light moralizing touch. Bausch shows us a way to still become angels in this devilish and solipsistic, senseless world. So we are tempted by a dark-haired and -clad Sataness who instructs us on how to have a sexual relationship with the seraphs among us – her character seldom interacts with the others and at the end, we see her in a bulky skirt and white T-shirt shovelling hay with a fork and moving bricks with a cigarette hanging from her lips – but we are also presented with its angelic counterpart. A little later a blond woman in a light green dress stands in the middle of the stage with a man in a black suit right behind her. As her torso moves the man’s hands transforms her from horned to winged creature. As in life, one has control over one’s own actions and fate, so in the piece she starts by being both and then the balance is tipped towards the angelic side. The piece ends with her dancing swiftly in a transparent white dress and the man’s hands completing her with fluttering wings. The idea of hope is also conveyed by the general cheerful music throughout and ends with Bing Crosby’s Two Cigarettes in the Dark. On this last song the company walks in a continuous stream with arms open, as if presenting themselves – or rather, the facts of life – to the audience.

Bausch’s work is extremely personal. On stage her dancers perform without a hint of shame what in real life would be unthinkable, thus creating a cathartic bond with the public. Everything is normal. There is nothing to hide or fear. We laugh and cry with them. The more their soul is exposed, the more intimate we feel with them. This level of openness can only be achieved by intense work on personal material, which creates a serious problem for the legacy of Bausch’s pieces. During Bausch’s life the company used to produce a new piece a year. Since her death, four years ago, the company has managed to keep the tradition by restaging old pieces. Bausch is still present in the bodies and minds of her dancers (in this production, as well as Großmann, Dominique Mercy was also part of the original cast), and hopefully she will be for much longer, so that in the future, we will still be able to imagine her behind one of the two lights in the dark.